Author: Matthew Bamberg
Publisher: Course Technology PTR
Review by Conrad J. Obregon
One of the best ways to improve photography skills is by looking at the works of master photographers. By seeing what their vision had to offer and by examining how they used the formal elements like exposure, depth of field and framing one can learn how to use these techniques to better capture one’s own vision. This doesn’t mean copying their subjects or applying their techniques exactly as they used them, but rather examining the techniques and then modifying them and fitting them into one’s own arsenal.
This looks like the idea that Matthew Bamberg originally had in writing 101 Quick and Easy Ideas Taken from the Master Photographers of the Twentieth Century but somewhere his idea went astray.
The book discusses 37 great photographers, ranging from Bernice Abbott to Edward Weston. Each chapter starts with a brief description of the master’s career and then discusses some of his or her photographs. It is at this point that the author goes wrong. Claiming that it was too difficult to get the copyrights for images by the master photographers, the author instead provides links to websites where a photograph can be found, or tries to describe the image in words. Thereafter he presents one or more of his own images that are based upon the work of the master photographer.
Unfortunately, many of the URL’s that he provides are long and complex, and unless one is a really good touch typist one is unlikely to get the URL right on the first try, or in my case, after several tries. In other cases he doesn’t even provide a link, choosing instead to try to describe the work in a paragraph or two. Perhaps if the author had provided a web site with links it might have made it easier to view the examples. I understand the difficulty of getting copyright permissions, although I note that some other authors appear to have succeeded in the task of collecting these permissions, not to mention that some of the cited images were in the public domain. Without the images the project becomes a collection of Bamberg’s work.
When it came to suggesting what could be learned from the images, the author appeared to be concerned mostly with content and not how the formal elements explicated the content. Photographers might have benefited more from learning about the masters’ techniques.
In those cases where I examined the images to which the author referred and the photograph of the author that was based on the image, I found that the author seemed prone to copy subject matter rather than technique. For example, one of the photographers that the author profiled was Robert Adams. Adams specialized in black and white images, many of which showed how man has despoiled the landscape. (You don’t have to agree with Adams to appreciate his work or learn from him.) The Adams picture showed an arid but beautiful landscape in the middle of which a fire spewed thick clouds of black smoke. The photo arrays horizontal bands of light of varying tones marred by the diagonal black of the smoke and capturing the full range of light. The fire is far enough away so that details, like the oil pump in the middle foreground, only come to the viewer’s attention after the shock of the plume of smoke. Adams’ picture is both beautiful and a political statement. On the other hand, Bamberg’s picture drawn from Adams’ work shows an automobile, burning in the desert, with a firefighter approaching, dragging a hose. The smoke is a sort of light gray. The picture is more record than art and certainly doesn’t make any kind of statement. It does not appear to draw very much from Adams’ technique. This same disconnect is true for most of Bamberg’s images.
If you want to learn from the master photographers, I suggest you get a collection of their images, like those produced by John Szarkowski, the former director of photography at the Museum of Modern art, like Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art and study the images closely. That will prove immensely more useful than this book.